faulty pronoun reference

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

faulty pronoun reference
Make sure that your pronouns refer clearly to their antecedents (or referents). (Getty Images)


In traditional grammar, faulty pronoun reference is a catch-all term for a pronoun (often a personal pronoun) that doesn't refer clearly and unambiguously to its antecedent.   

Here are three common types of faulty pronoun reference:

(1) Ambiguous reference occurs when a pronoun can refer to more than one antecedent.

(2) Remote reference occurs when a pronoun is so far away from its antecedent that the relationship is unclear.

(3) Vague reference occurs when a pronoun refers to a word that is only implied, not stated.

Note that some pronouns don't require antecedents. For example, the first-person pronouns I and we point to the speaker(s) or narrator(s), so no specific noun antecedent is needed. Also, by their nature, interrogative pronouns (who, whom, whose, which, what) and indefinite pronouns do not have antecedents.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:


Examples and Observations

  • "A pronoun should refer to a specific antecedent, not to a word that is implied but not present in the sentence.
    After braiding Ann's hair, Sue decorated them with ribbons.
    The pronoun them referred to Ann's braids (implied by the term braiding), but the word braids did not appear in the sentence."
    (Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers, Rules for Writers, 7th ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2012)

  • Ambiguous Pronoun Reference
    "If a pronoun can refer to more than one antecedent, revise the sentence to make the meaning clear.
    - The car went over the bridge just before it fell into the water.

    What fell into the water—the car or the bridge? The revision [The car went over the bridge just before the bridge fell into the water] makes the meaning clear by replacing the pronoun it with the bridge.

    - Kerry told Ellen, she should be ready soon.
    Reporting Kerry's words directly, in quotation marks [Kerry told Ellen, 'I should be ready soon'], eliminates the ambiguity.
    "If a pronoun and its antecedent are too far apart, you may need to replace the pronoun with the appropriate noun."
    (Andrea Lunsford, The St. Martin's Handbook, 6th ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008)

  • Remote Pronoun Reference
    "The closer a pronoun and its antecedent appear to each other, the more easily readers can spot the relationship between them. If many words intervene, the reader may lose the connection. In the following passage, by the time readers get to he in the fourth sentence, they may have forgotten Galileo is the antecedent. Find a place to introduce the pronoun earlier, or use the antecedent again.
    In the seventeenth century, the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei upset the Catholic Church by publishing a scientific paper asserting that the Earth revolved around the sun. That assertion contradicted contemporary church belief, which held that the Earth was the center of the universe. The paper also violated a papal order {that Galileo had accepted} of sixteen years earlier not to 'hold, teach, or defend' such a doctrine. Under pressure from the church, he {Galileo} recanted his theory of the Earth's motion, but even as he recanted, he {Galileo} is said to have whispered, 'Eppur si muove' ('Nonetheless it moves')."
    (Toby Fulwiler and Alan R. Hayakawa, The Blair Handbook, 4th ed. Prentice Hall, 2003)

  • Vague Pronoun Reference
    - "Sometimes faulty pronoun reference occurs, not because there are too many nouns possibly being referred to, but because there is none. That is, a pronoun is misused when the real noun to which it refers has not actually been mentioned.
    Since the legal profession is highly valued by the public, they are very well paid.
    The pronoun in this example is they. When we look for the noun to which they refers, we find two possibilities, the legal profession and the public. However, both these real nouns are singular and would be referred to by it. So they cannot mean either the legal profession or the public

    "As you may have surmised, they is meant to refer to lawyers, a noun which never appears in the sentence. The pronoun, therefore, is faulty."
    (Andrea B. Geffner, Business English: The Writing Skills You Need for Today's Workplace, 5th ed. Barron's, 2010)

    - "A professor at a local university sent us this gem written in a term paper by one of his students. The sentence read, 'The farmers have to raise the cattle so they will be strong and healthy enough to eat.'

    "Yikes! Who is eating whom in this farming community? Sre the ranchers fattening up their own for shipment to the dog food plant? Is cannibalism alive and well somewhere in rural Iowa? Of course not! The sentence contains a vague antecedent. . . . The sentence should read, 'The farmers have to raise their cattle to be strong and healthy enough to eat.'"
    (Michael Strumpf and Auriel Douglas, The Grammar Bible. Owl, 2004)

  • Broad Pronoun Reference
    "Pronoun reference is broad when that, this, which, or it refers to a whole statement containing one or more possible antecedents within it:
    *The senator opposes the bottle bill, which rankles many of his constituents.
    Are they rankled by the bill or by the senator's opposition to it?
    Edited: The senator's opposition to the bottle bill rankles many of his constituents.
    (James A.W. Heffernan and John E. Lincoln, Writing: A College Handbook, 3rd ed. Norton 1990)

    - How to correct problems of broad pronoun reference 
    "Scan your writing for pronouns, taking special note of places where you use this, that, it, or which. Check to be sure that it is crystal clear what this, that, it, which, or another pronoun refers to. If it is not, revise your sentence."
    (Rise B. Axelrod, Charles R. Cooper, The St. Martin's Guide to Writing, 9th ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2010)

  • The Lighter Side of Faulty Pronoun Reference

    Ensign Ezri Dax: I told him all about Trill traditions—Jadzia did. We discussed them—they discussed them.
    Captain Sisko: I understand.
    Ensign Ezri Dax: These pronouns are going to drive me crazy!
    (Nicole de Boer and Avery Brooks, "Afterimage." Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, 1998)

    Angel: I should've stopped them. They made her drink.
    Wesley Wyndam-Pryce: Angel?
    Angel: She didn't want to. You think that you can resist, but then it's too late.
    Wesley Wyndam-Pryce: Someone made Darla drink?
    Angel: It was her.
    Cordelia Chase: Okay, way too many pronouns here. Who's "her"?
    Angel: Drusilla.
    Cordelia Chase: Drusilla's here?
    Wesley Wyndam-Pryce: Good lord.
    Charles Gunn: Who's Drusilla?
    (David Boreanaz, Alexis Denisof, Charisma Carpenter, and J. August Richards in "Reunion." Angel, 2000)